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Source: Human Rights Commission

By Paul Hunt, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

This was first published in The Dominion Post on 26 February 2020

The public service reforms, now being rushed through Parliament, are built upon a spectacular double standard.

Our public service was designed more than 30 years ago. Reforms are needed. They will have a huge impact on how we are governed for a generation. But inserting hypocrisy at the heart of the reform is a big mistake.

The Public Service Legislation Bill explicitly secures all the rights and freedoms in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and Human Rights Act, for all public service employees. This is just as it should be.

But the draft bill does not require public service employees to pay any explicit attention to the rights and freedoms of everyone else.

In other words, human rights are good for the public service, but not for the public.

Devising policies and advising ministers

When public service employees are devising policies and advising ministers, you would expect them to give explicit attention to New Zealand law. You would expect an employee to advise, “This is the law relevant to your policy, minister.”

The minister is free to disregard the advice, but the public service should provide it.

Human rights are about things that are especially important to human beings. That’s why our society gives them the elevated status it does.

The public service should tell ministers the human rights that are relevant to their initiatives, and how rights can help to design and deliver effective, fair, inclusive policies.

The double standard at the core of the public service reform is that the bill explicitly secures the human rights of public service employees, but it fails to require these employees to explicitly take account of New Zealand’s national and international human rights commitments that are designed to protect us all.

Out of step

This is especially remarkable because it runs against a strong current, within Parliament and the public service, flowing in the opposite direction. For example, the Oranga Tamariki Act, first passed in 1989, explicitly requires human rights to be “respected and upheld”. 

Scotland, Canada, Germany, Finland and other countries increasingly give explicit recognition to human rights commitments in their policy-making processes.

So how could the bill be amended? The reforms set out the purpose and principles which should animate the public service. A few suitable words in these provisions would do the job. For example, a call for the public service to “uphold national and international human rights commitments”.

Serving communities?

In a welcome development, the bill says the “fundamental character of the public service is acting with a spirit of service to the community”. But this sounds hollow when the public service’s only explicit human rights commitment is to those of its employees.

Human rights are for everyone, everywhere, every day. They are for individuals, whānau, iwi and communities. They are about clinics, hospitals, residential care, decent homes, fair wages, a healthy environment, schools, universities, robust democracy, humane prisons, and building strong inclusive communities. 

Last week, the Office of Ethnic Communities published Conversations with Aotearoa New Zealand’s Muslim Communities. It reported “public services need to lead by example in addressing racism, hate speech, discrimination and Islamophobia, and create an environment of inclusion and acceptance”.

In short, the public service must take explicit human rights seriously both within the public service and beyond.

Stop the hypocrisy

Human rights place commitments on government, including the public service.

They should not be reduced to an empty tick-box compliance check as already completed policy papers approach the Cabinet.

Human rights should not be an after-thought. They should be on the policy table, in the mix, at the beginning of the policy process.

They contribute to robust policy-making and enhance fairness and inclusion.

The omission of a requirement for the public service to uphold national and international human rights commitments is extremely serious.

It’s not too late to stop the double standard, hypocrisy and backsliding – and put matters right.